How to be a successful music producer

Recording Connection Rafa Sardina and Jeff Riggs attend Latin GrammysIn his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell explains that to achieve world-class greatness in a field, a subject needs to spend 10,000 hours practicing a specific task. So, if you spend 20 hours a week on a subject, whether it’s golf, concert piano, or law, you’d become an expert. At that rate, you’d need around 10 years of practice.

But, really, to become a successful music producer it takes much longer than that. Because music genres come and go and new technologies are developed, staying at the top of your game is a never-ending life of learning, practice, and work. True professionals never stop learning – they just get paid to do it.

The study removed the advantages of natural talent, so the path to success may not take you a decade. But everybody has to start at hour one. So if you’re interested in becoming a successful music producer, there are a few things you should know from the very beginning.

Understand Music To Produce Music

If you’re looking for a path to producing success, you already have a love of music. You’ve dissected hundreds of hours of music, pored over liner notes, and spent many a weekend at venues watching your favorite artists. But do you know what went into making the song of the summer?

Continue to expand your musical knowledge base and venture outside of your comfort zone. Grow up listening to hip hop? Delve into country-western to see what works – and doesn’t work – for those artists. You don’t have to be a fan of a particular genre to recognize when a song sings or sinks.

You don’t need to know how to play the drums or guitar either but you do need to understand how the two instruments work together in the mix and how to layer the different sounds. And don’t limit yourself to the hits – search out independent artists. Are they all going to be great? Probably not, but you may be able to learn more from a less-than-stellar song compared to a chart-topper.

Spend a Little, Learn a Lot

While you could book some studio time to play around with the dials and sliders to see how everything works, that will become a spendy proposition after time. Before you start looking for local studios to practice in, find out what goes into a professional studio and try to emulate that in your home studio.

Will it be as advanced? Of course not. Working studio spaces have been designed, built, and outfitted with specific equipment to produce optimal output. But you can start researching how to make your den, basement, or bedroom into a reasonable home studio. From monitor placement to setting a few sound traps there are plenty of ways to diffuse sound and improve acoustics.

Once you have your studio space squared away, you’ll need to put in some equipment. At the start, you’ll need a computer, a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW), and some headphones. Chances are you already have a computer or laptop. If not, get one. It doesn’t have to be a top of the line Mac or PC, but it should be able to run a DAW and store your files.

There are several DAWs on the market today, including industry standards Ableton, Pro Tools, and Logic Pro. You can’t go wrong using any of these, although the price tag can be a little steep. Many DAWs even offer 30-day free trials, basic versions, and student pricing to lessen the punch to the pocketbook.

You still have to hear the music you’re producing, right? While your room is set up for ideal monitor placement, you’ll also want to invest in a decent pair of headphones. Noise-canceling headphones are great for working on your music without any ambient noise. The monitors come into play when you want to know how your audience will hear the music.

As your skills improve, you can add gear. Microphones, midi keyboards, equalizers, and more will all need to become part of your arsenal. Just as you learned the DAWs, you’ll need to learn what each piece of equipment does and how it’s used to help produce music. Just as your experience grows, so should your contact list.

Work Networking

Once you have a handle on your style of producing, it’s time to start incorporating others. Offer to work with a friend’s band, meet other like-minded individuals on social media, or even head to the local bar and find some local acts to work with. At this point, if you’re still in your bedroom, now is the time to find a local studio to work in.

Even this can be a great way to pick up some pointers. Ask the studio owner or resident producer to give your work the once over. Obviously, these people have their work to concentrate on, so be genuine and don’t push it. And if they have advice, accept it! They are where you want to be – maybe they can help you on your way.

As you work begins to gain traction, artists may come to you instead of the other way around. Now is not the time to be picky. Dr. Dre can choose who he works with, you can’t. At least not yet. Remember when we said to soak up as many genres as possible? This is where it will pay off.

Part of networking is knowing how to work with artists in the studio. Maybe jazz isn’t your thing, but if the artist can sense your disinterest, you’ll lose a paying gig… and maybe more. You don’t want to be known as a music producer who thinks they’re above certain types of music, do you?

Just consider it another learning opportunity. Remember, as a music producer, you never stop learning. Whether it’s how to set up the mics, investigating new VST plugins (Virtual Studio Technology) or DAWS, or altering a mix ever so slightly to improve the quality of the sound. No two sessions are the same – you’ll need to learn versatility and how to adapt to the situation.

Who’s Paying For This?

Your bank account has been taking steady hits since you’ve begun this journey. From the samples you’ve been buying, to your initial setup, to renting studio time, it can feel like your passion is bleeding you dry. And you’re probably right. But if you’re at the point where people want to work with you, it’s time to start making some of that money back.

Don’t give up the day job just yet. You aren’t going to recoup the thousands of dollars and hours of blood sweat and tears in one job. It might have taken you a year or two to get to this point, but you still don’t have “experience” yet. Price yourself accordingly. Maybe enough to cover studio time with some leftover to get dinner afterward.

If you know what you’re doing, remain professional in trying times, and produce quality work, people will notice. Soon, you’ll be able to raise your rates. Ultimately, artists will probably even do some of your networking for you, telling fellow artists about the great job you did. Maybe you’ll take over an existing space for your own studio.

It’s not going to happen overnight. This too is a time to learn about money management, when to pay out for session players, and when to dial expenses up or down. Making music is just part of the music producing business. Even once you’ve finally “made it” as a producer and get steady work, it’s of critical importance to bring in more money than you’re paying out and to factor all of those expenses correctly.

Learning to become a music producer on your own can be a long, yet gratifying, endeavor. To cut down on those 10,000 hours, consider applying to Recording Connection. As part of our Audio Engineering & Music Production or Music Producing workshop, you’ll get one-on-one time in a working studio, mentored by an industry professional.

You’ll still have to be determined, be responsible for yourself, and put in the time improving outside of the studio to be successful. But with these alternatives, you can get the real-world experience you need and receive professional guidance from your mentor, so that you’ll be able to avoid mistakes and the wasted time of the do-it-yourselfer. Ready to start working your way towards becoming a successful music producer? Apply today.


(pictured above) Jeff Riggs attends Latin Grammys with mentor Rafa Sardina

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